Saudi Arabia has “spared no effort” in its COVID-19 vaccination drive according to a new study, which highlighted the Kingdom’s success in battling the pandemic and its goal to achieve herd immunity.
The first case of COVID-19 was reported in the Kingdom on March 2 2020 and the country quickly implemented multiple interventions to limit the spread of the virus, according to the study: ‘Launching COVID-19 vaccination in Saudi Arabia: Lessons learned, and the way forward.’ Published in the medical journal Science Direct, it detailed Saudi Arabia’s journey tackling the spread of the virus.
Lead author, Dr. Abdullah Asiri, the Assistant Undersecretary of the Ministry of Health for Preventive Health and Consultant in Contagious Diseases, said preventative measures included the cancellation of social events, mass gatherings, citywide festivals, religious gatherings, cultural celebrations and scientific conferences.
Saudi Arabia was one of the first countries in the world to begin a country-wide vaccination drive, said Asiri. The Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine was the first vaccine to be approved for use in the Kingdom in mid-December 2020, followed by the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in February 2021.
“Saudi Arabia was very proactive in the preparation for the availability of COVID-19 vaccine,” said Asiri, adding that the Kingdom quickly established a national immunization technical advisory group and the establishment of a vaccine committee to aid in a rapid nationwide vaccination rollout.
The committee chose to first distribute vaccines based on the size of the population of each city, prioritizing those with higher populations, including Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam, Madinah, and Makkah.
“Large quantities of the vaccine was provided so a ramp-up plan was proposed to achieve herd immunity and eventually limit the spread of the virus and the progression of COVID-19,” said Asiri.
“The plan was to expand vaccination operations to include dedicated vaccine centers including mega sites, Expos, old airport terminals, and leverage pre-existing medical facilities including primary healthcare centers, field hospitals and public hospitals,” he added.
By the end of February 2021, 128 COVID-19 vaccine sites were set up around the country.
The initial plan, said Asiri, was to administer 6.5 million doses in the first quarter of 2021 and 10.5 million in the second quarter to hit a target of 17 million jabs.
The priority, he said, was to target frontline healthcare workers, individuals in security and military sectors, and all individuals at increased risk for severe disease (those above 65 of age and individuals with two or more chronic medical conditions).
The second phase continued to focus on these frontline groups, but also targeted essential workers in the public and private sector such as education, communications and transportation and those with chronic medical conditions.
Phase three was directed at the remaining population.
Due to the storage requirements for Pfizer-Biotech doses to remain at -70c, Saudi Arabia designated large exhibition centers in key cities for the administration of the vaccine, said Asiri, and the Kingdom began a mass public awareness campaign to encourage people to receive their jabs.
“No effort was spared to assure the highest level of vaccine equity,” he said. “The government announced the launch of a public registration system that prioritized vaccination appointments based on preset conditions. Citizens, expatriates, and visitors were all eligible to register and receive the vaccine free of charge.”
“A Royal decree was issued stating that the vaccine should be provided to all Saudi citizens and residents, including illegal residents, equally and at no cost to the individual.”
A total of 16,522,087 vaccine doses have been administered as of June 20, 2021, according to the health ministry spokesman. To date, the Kingdom’s vaccination drive has been steady, currently averaging at about 123,643 doses administered per day, according to COVID-19 data from Reuters.
Asiri said the goal now is to achieve herd immunity across the Kingdom.
“Giving the increasing number of COVID-19 around the globe, the need for herd immunity is with no doubt an important issue to tackle,” he said. “Saudi Arabia had implemented a very active process to provide immunization to all residents.”
“The MOH had made the vaccine available at all healthcare sectors including the MOH facilities, institutions, private hospitals and clinics as well as large public pharmacies.”
“The mass vaccination campaigns are already scaled up to all citizens and residents free of charge. The first one million vaccinees was completed in more than two months, the second million was accomplished in (another) ten days and the third million in (another) seven days.”
Asiri said that the “Sehhaty” application allowed citizens and residents to easily book appointments and know the locations of the COVID-19 vaccination centers in the Kingdom.
“Daily MOH briefings and updates including strong messages for the public to accept the vaccine and share histories of those who were hesitant to take the vaccine and unfortunately developed COVID-19 with poor clinical outcome,” he said.
Asiri said, as of the end of May, more than 13.9 million people across the country had been vaccinated.
The Kingdom’s COVID-19 death toll has so far mounted to 7,677 and total recoveries to 455,618, according to figures released on Sunday.